Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2009

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New Hampshire Mandates Public Kindergarten





Five-year-olds in New Hampshire filed into their district's public schools for the first time this fall, when the state ended its decades-long reputation as the only state without kindergarten available everywhere. After years of endless toiling, debating, and campaigning, the state legislature approved a bill making public kindergarten mandatory for all school districts. The legislature provides $3.5 million of state money to facilitate portable classrooms, computers, furniture, and miscellaneous equipment to accommodate the incoming kindergarten students. New Hampshire is the last state to universally offer kindergarten; Oregon was the 49th state to do so, passing a law in 1989. The New Hampshire law does not require children to attend kindergarten, but requires schools to offer the classes.

In 2007, the newly Democratic legislature defined kindergarten as an integral aspect of an adequate education. They set the deadline for schools to offer kindergarten by fall 2008, but extended the deadline to fall 2009. The extension gave the schools without kindergarten enough time to set up classrooms for the new students. The kindergarten mandate will supply schools with 75% of costs to create space for kindergarten.

While 92.8% of New Hampshire school districts already offered public and private kindergarten, 10 districts in the south-central part of the state did not, according to New Hampshire Department of Education's Kindergarten in New Hampshire & Kindergarten Studies. The 10 districts were Pelham, Salem, Mason, Litchfield, Milford, Lyndeborough, Windham, Chester, Hudson, and the Mascenic area. These districts represented 13% of children without access to public kindergarten, with parents having to send their children to private kindergarten schools or out-of-district schools. This posed problems for parents who could not afford the tuition rates for private or out-of-district education. Educators see the presence of private schools in New Hampshire as a possible explanation for the lack of urgency in mandating public kindergarten. However, even if all New Hampshire children tried to enroll in private schools, the private schools could not accommodate them all, according to the Department of Education.

Although residents of some communities felt private schools sufficed for the other districts not offering public kindergarten, Emma Rous, the New Hampshire Chair of the House Education Committee, believes otherwise. She says that not offering kindergarten caused New Hampshire to be "lagging" in public education. As one of the initial advocates of the bill, she believed the diverse private school curriculums led to children entering first grade with varying degrees of knowledge. "I was very pleased when it was approved," she says of the legislation.

Helen Schotanus, a New Hampshire Department of Education consultant, has worked on getting public schools to offer kindergarten for 23 years. She explains that the state's hesitancy in offering public kindergarten arose from complacency, and primarily because a number of people did not believe in the importance of kindergarten.

The Department of Education's study, however, refutes the claims that kindergarten is not important by citing the positive effects of children attending kindergarten. The study shows that when children had more kindergarten classes, more students attended high school, performed well on tests, and were more frequently able to support themselves through employment. The study also shows fewer placements in special education classes and institutional care, fewer grade retention cases, and fewer arrests among students. Kindergarten enables educators to see learning disabilities at a young age and do more to correct them early on. The benefits of fewer grade retention cases will save the state about $2.5 million annually, as the department's studies show that before public kindergarten was available in New Hampshire, first grade had an average retention of 74 students per year.

The loss of local control and the burden of additional taxes have created a backlash, with Hudson school district residents filing a lawsuit against the mandate early this year. The case, however, was dismissed by the New Hampshire Superior Court. The plaintiffs believe that as taxpayers, their financial strains will be aggravated, as they will have to pay even more for the implementation of the mandate.

Despite the debates still brewing in parts of New Hampshire, many kindergarten advocates are certain that this will bring about positive change in their educational system. Offering kindergarten nationwide is a major step for early childhood education.

Maria Carmela Sioco is an editorial intern at CWLA.

Illinois

According to the Chicago Tribune, a new law states that youth who leave the welfare system can return to seek support until age 21, and at-risk parents can ask for help without being investigated. Current law states that if child abuse and neglect are reported, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, a CWLA member agency, will take care of children by either removing them from their homes or warning their family to comply or face losing their children. The new law will now give the agency a third option to assess the needs of at-risk families.

California

The largest juvenile detention facility in California, the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, will soon be closed and converted into an adult prison, according to the Los Angeles Times. This will reduce the Division of Juvenile Justice's workforce significantly by the end of the year and save the state $40 million. The number of juvenile offenders in state custody has decreased by approximately 8,000 in the past decade, due to legislation that puts youth in county facilities closer to their homes. Stark is currently used to accommodate displaced adult inmates from the California Institute of Men.

New Jersey

The New Jersey Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board's studies have shown that family problems, like addiction and domestic violence, have been overlooked by child welfare workers in child abuse cases, the New Jersey Real-Time News reports. Some psychologists rely solely on parents' testimonies without using proper documentation in evaluating children's mental health, the research says. These studies conclude that changes should be made in properly assessing a healthy family and a secure child; the state should consider uniform standards in investigating child deaths, while agencies should review their guidelines and their contracts with mental health experts.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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